There are, famously, writers who hate to write. James Joyce described writing in English as “the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” But others — like Crystal Hana Kim ’09 — find in it a form of salvation. The process is essential to her: “If I’m not writing, I’m not happy,” she said bluntly in an interview with Nylon.
Kim grew up in Jericho, Long Island, the daughter of immigrants, and Korean was her first language; she’d translate it into English in her head. This made writing — rather than speaking — “the most comfortable way to communicate,” she tells Columbia College Today.
So it wasn’t surprising when Kim, once admitted to the College, turned her English major coursework into her personal creative writing program. She started taking workshops and writing short stories, though they were a far cry from the complex, engrossing, research-based fiction she would later undertake. “When I started writing in college, I really pushed away from writing about anything related to Korea,” she later said. “It was because I was worried that that’s all I could write about.” In a recent essay for The Paris Review, she sums up much of her undergraduate fiction as “fragmented scenes” featuring “faceless, raceless, colorless young women in shitty relationships.” But it was also at the College that she began to explore the complexities of the mother-daughter bond, and, eventually, to sketch out Korean characters. She also started thinking about getting an M.F.A.
As an immigrant’s daughter, Kim feared that the M.F.A. route could be “too risky.” But when her desire to write remained strong, she returned to Columbia, to the School of the Arts, to pursue her true passion. This time around, she decided to embrace her roots. A series of interconnected short stories she had been working on — narratives in different characters’ voices — turned into a multi-voiced novel set during the Korean War and its aftermath. Its central focus was a realistically drawn woman, Haemi, who grows from a teenage refugee in the South Korean countryside, displaced within the borders of her own country, into a postwar wife and mother.
To flesh out the novel, Kim knew she needed to steep herself in extensive historical research. She watched documentaries, studied political and historical texts, and pored over photographs (a collection from the City History Compilation Committee of Seoul proved to be a trove of visual information). The toughest part of her research was finding details about the wartime experiences of Korean women. “Their voices were not valued, so it wasn’t recorded,” Kim says. Growing up, she loved war movies but had always found it frustrating that the stories focused on male heroics and never the women who had to “make sure that daily life is running,” despite the chaos around them. “The war affects you even if you’re not at the battle line,” she says.
These days, in addition to writing fiction, Kim is a director of writing instruction at the nonprofit Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She is working on her second novel, a story that should include at least one Korean-American. The writing process — a tin of pencils and pens, a candle that she lights when she begins — continues to sustain her. One of her literary touchstones, Kim tells Columbia Journal, is a Louise Erdrich quotation: “I approach the work as though, in truth, I’m nothing and the words are everything. Then I write to save my life ...”
— Rose Kernochan BC’82
Kyunghwan and I met where the farm fields ended and our refugee village began. I waited until my little brother was asleep, until I could count seven seconds between his uneasy inhales. I listened as Hyunki’s breath struggled through the thick scum in his lungs. If he coughed, I’d stay and take care of him. On those nights, I imagined Kyunghwan waiting for me by the lamppost with cigarette butts scattered in a halo around his feet.
Everyone in our village whispered what they wanted to believe: the war would end and we would return to our real homes soon. Mother and the other aunties chattered in the market. They had survived thirty-five years of Japanese rule and the Second World War. They had withstood the division of our Korea by foreign men. What was a little fighting among our own compared to past misfortune? We can stitch ourselves back together, Mother said. I believed her.
When Hyunki’s breathing was steady and slow, I slipped out through the kitchen entrance and went in search of Kyunghwan. He and I were celebrating. We celebrated every night.
A year ago, when the 6-2-5 war between the North and South began, everyone in my country fled, propelled by confusion and news in the form of unexpected sounds—bullets, airplanes, the cries of the dying.
The mothers, daughters, elders, and children of my hometown stampeded south, hitching ourselves onto trains, scrabbling up mountains, wading through paddies, and treading rivers. Mother, Hyunki, and I wore white and carried loads on our backs and on our heads. We walked until we reached the southeasternmost tip of our peninsula, where shelters gathered around markets and landmarks to form crude villages. All along the coast, people I knew from childhood lived crammed up against strangers. Most settled in the center of Busan, where houses and churches and schools and salvaged structures packed the streets. Refugees thronged together as tight as bean sprouts, as if closeness and the East Sea equaled protection.
Mother separated us from the others, planting us farther out in the fields, away from the ocean and its currents. She said it was foolish to live so close together. “They’ll be killed clean in one day if the Reds come. Swept into the sea like a pile of dead fish.”
She often spoke of luck and what happened in its absence. We were lucky to have been among the first wave of refugees. We were lucky her great-uncle had died soon after our arrival, so we could claim his straw-roofed home as our own. It was small and time-worn, but less fortunate families sheltered beneath scraps of steel. We were lucky the others, displaced and adrift, had not dared to crowd us out — and lucky to have found this place where life persisted, where news of fighting arrived on leaflets but didn’t yet invade our days.
I felt lucky for nothing except my nightly distractions — for Kyunghwan, whom I had known since childhood, and his desire to erase my fears, and our secret hours together.
I arrived through the field to find Kyunghwan waiting. He blew a stream of smoke in my direction, and the clouds curled toward me, hazy and warm. I breathed in their bitter scent. “What took so long?” he asked.
“Hyunki’s sick again.” I grabbed the cigarette from his lips. “It took him a while to fall asleep.”
He nodded at the hanbok I wore. “You still want to go?”
“Would I chance coming out here for no reason?”
I blew a smoke ring in the dim glow of the lamppost.
His gaze lingered on my long wraparound skirt and short jacket top. I shrugged. “I don’t want to wear the men’s pants anymore. We’ll be careful.”
“I don’t know.” He stared at the road connecting our market to the other makeshift villages. “What if someone catches us?”
“No one will hear us if we’re quiet.” I started toward his bicycle, partially hidden behind the thick barley. “Let’s go.”
“We’ll head east,” he said, catching up to me. “Found some extra money this time.”
“Can we buy food? I’m so hungry I sucked on one of Hyunki’s tree roots today.”
Kyunghwan held the bicycle steady as I scooted onto the handlebars. “We’ll see.”
I didn’t care where we went, if we only cycled around in the open air. But Kyunghwan liked to hunt for the hideaway bars rumored about among the men. These establishments moved from alley to alley, avoiding detection. Even when we found one, they rarely allowed two sixteen-year-olds like us in — so we’d beg drunkards and homebrewers to pity us a bowlful of makgeolli. We ’d drink in fields and forests and behind buildings. On lucky nights, we ’d find a bar and pretend we were wounded orphans.
As the dirt road raced toward us, I closed my eyes and listened to Kyunghwan’s steady breathing. “I’ve got you,” he whispered whenever he felt me tense. But when we were drunk and cycling back, I’d loosen and stare at the black sky, my hair whipping into his face — and he’d tell me to straighten up, that we’d fall into a ditch one day.
In the next village, everything looked the same as in our own. Mud and grass-built quarters, an open road where a market assembled every morning, scrap-metal shelters scrounged together from what people could find. “We’ll cover the bicycle here and walk,” Kyunghwan whispered as we reached a standing tree.
At the first hideaway, the men joked that I was a poor man’s whore and refused us entry. Eventually, we found a narrow shack made of wooden planks and blankets cramped into a back alley. Kyunghwan wrapped his arm around my shoulders. When a man tried to stop us, I touched Kyunghwan’s cheek the way I thought a lover might.
“I got drafted. This is our last night together,” he said.
The man let us in with a warning. “Don’t bring attention to yourselves.”
A few men looked up as we ducked under the blanket entrance. The makeshift bar was composed of makeshift objects. Upended tin drums were packed tightly together to form tables. A plank bolstered by metal dowels acted as a serving area at one end. Crates, bricks, and the ground were used as seats. We wove through the unwashed bodies to a corner spot with two crates. I tried not to look at the others, to feel the heat of their gazes. I hoped it was too dim or too late in the night for them to care that I was a girl.
Once we were seated, it was too dark to make out Kyunghwan’s face. I could see only the shadow of his thick, straight nose and thin lips. I liked it this way. I knew him already — the smooth arc of his forehead, the turn of his wrists, the freckles along his right arm and how, when traced to his elbow, they formed an ocean’s wave. His face was beautiful when he wasn’t using it to charm others. He tilted his head toward the lone candle burning in the center of the room and closed his eyes; he knew me, too.
We listened to the sound of bowls hitting drums. We sipped cloudy-white makgeolli until our eyes adjusted to the dark, and we talked about the drunks all around us. A lonely grandfather with drawings of women and children lining his table — his family, perhaps. Another man with a jagged scar running across his face. In the flickering candlelight, it shone like a streak of fat.
“What do you think her story is?” Kyunghwan nodded at the only other woman in the bar. She was older and wore a short hanbok top that exposed her breasts. I watched Kyunghwan’s gaze sweep over her body. Her companion reached out a hand, but I couldn’t tell if he meant to touch her or cover her up.
“She’s clearly not his mother.” I glanced at my own hanbok top, my hidden chest. “She has nice breasts.”
“Big, though,” I said.
Kyunghwan turned back to me with a wide grin. I stood, saying, “I want food. The alcohol’s hitting me too fast.” I hadn’t eaten since morning and knew he probably hadn’t, either. We were stupid, wasting money like this, but I didn’t care. I placed a hand on his shoulder when he tried to stand. “Stay. Pour us another bowl.”
Tonight, soaring through these streets, I imagined reaching for the clouds, swirling them around a stick and licking them down.
I ordered arrowroot porridge and fried anchovies, a small lick of red pepper paste. The barman squinted at me from across the wooden stand. “Your father know you’re here with a man? How old are you?”
“Old enough.” I tapped my knuckles against the scrap of wood that separated us and tried to look as if I didn’t care.
“You shouldn’t be in a place like this.”
“I already paid.” I jutted out my chin. “The porridge, please?” He shook his head. “Wait here.”
When he returned, I told him, “He’s leaving for Seoul. He’s drafted.”
The man bent over and sank a bottle into a large pot of makgeolli. Milky clouds swirled through pale moony liquid. After he filled the bottle, he wiped it with a brown rag. “Here,” he said. “I don’t understand this war, this fighting our own.”
I dropped the makgeolli on our tin drum and held out a plate piled high with small fried fish. Kyunghwan pinched one by the tail and sucked it down. “Got thirsty on your way back?”
“The barman took pity on us. Can you get the other dish?”
Kyunghwan brought over the porridge and raised his eyebrows. “Who orders mush?”
I shrugged. “Steal more money next time.”
“You know what the barman said? To take good care of you tonight.” Kyunghwan grinned.
“Now I feel bad for lying.”
“Me too. We shouldn’t joke about that.”
He scooted closer. I watched his hands and mouth, how he only smudged a drop of pepper paste onto a spoonful of porridge.
“What if you are drafted?” I asked.
“What does it matter?” He sipped, smacked his lips. When he exhaled, I smelled the spice and fish collecting on his tongue. “The man’s watching. Let’s act like a couple.”
I let Kyunghwan feed me an anchovy but made a face when the barman looked away. “That’s not what couples do. And what do you mean it doesn’t matter?”
He wouldn’t answer. I let it go.
We poured each other bowls the formal way, with bowed heads and both hands. We talked in old drunken man accents until our stomachs hurt with laughter. He recalled our hometown and our grade-school teacher, the one with the cluster of moles on his cheek. How we two had been the clever ones, yet only Kyunghwan was ever praised. I asked if he remembered how Teacher Kim had made the girls wash the floors with rags that rubbed the skin from our fingers. Kyunghwan reminded me that even if I hated him, Teacher Kim was dead, so we sipped makgeolli in his honor. We quieted until Kyunghwan no longer liked our wistfulness, until he tried to get me to raise my top like the lady in the corner. We drank until it was hard not to touch each other. Then he answered me.
“It doesn’t matter if I get drafted or if I don’t show up tomorrow night because you’re letting Jisoo court you. He told me.”
“That’s not true.” I pushed my bowl against his, until our rims touched.
“He’s my cousin.”
“Your fathers are cousins,” I said. “And that doesn’t make what he says true.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
I had forgotten about Jisoo. I didn’t want him in the room with us—not even the mention of him. I looked up. I could use my face to charm, too. “Pour, Kyunghwan.”
He sighed and filled my bowl.
They kicked everyone out an hour later, in time for us to scurry home before national curfew. I hated leaving, the sudden plunge back into our lives, but I liked how I felt scraped clean with alcohol, painted over with indifference, until I was a wash of emptiness inside. We stumbled into the street, and I watched the sadness drift out of us. “There it goes,” I said, pointing as it floated away into the riven sky.
“What are you talking about?” Kyunghwan tugged my arm. “Get on the bike.”
As we raced through Busan’s dirt streets, I thought of our hometown. The boys’ middle school had stood along its western edge. When we were younger, when boys and girls were still allowed to be friends, Kyunghwan and I spent our free afternoons there. A stone wall enclosed the property, and on one side it cornered around a tree. The tree’s roots had broken through the ground, causing the stones to loosen and form a nook. This was where we sat, our backs to the sunken slabs, our feet propped against the trunk, as Kyunghwan taught me what he’d learned that day. After the Second World War, when we were liberated from Japan and students were taught to replace their foreign alphabet with our own Korean, he was the one who showed me. I was no longer allowed to attend class, but we still believed we’d go to college together someday. Until then, Kyunghwan wanted to share all he knew.
Northeast of that school was my real home, waiting for my return. Wild and yellow forsythia bushes grew along the wall that enclosed our property. I remembered the smooth slab of stepping-stone that led to our thatch-roofed hanok. It was just wide enough for four pairs of shoes. I used to place flowers in Father’s sandals to rid them of his smell. Above the step, a planked wooden porch ran the length of our home. Even then, Mother had insisted on living apart from the others, if only by half an hour’s walk and a few fields. I imagined the structure now. Packed full of Korean and American soldiers, or worse — the Reds, our rooms ransacked and gutted.
“Do you miss home?” I turned on the handlebars to catch a glimpse of Kyunghwan’s face.
“Don’t wobble.” He thrust his head forward, his voice heavy with effort. “And you should dress as a boy next time. I don’t like how those men stared.”
“They were my father’s pants.” I kept my head straight and still, watching the texture of black trees on black sky. My hand searched for Kyunghwan’s fingers on the handlebars. “I had to wear them when we fled.”
“I didn’t know.” He paused. “Haemi?”
“Keep cycling, Kyunghwan.”
I listened to his breath as he pedaled up the hill. It was a habit I’d learned from Hyunki, this concentrating on steady beats of air. Some nights, after a day of watching my little brother ache and Mother hunger, I wanted to wrench the stars from the sky and fling them at our feet. But tonight, soaring through these streets, I imagined reaching for the clouds, swirling them around a stick and licking them down.
“Let’s do this even when we go home,” I said. “Meet in the night and explore. Do you want to?”
Kyunghwan, quiet and distant, cycled on.
From the book IF YOU LEAVE ME: A Novel by Crystal Hana Kim. Copyright © 2018 by Crystal Hana Kim. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.